A Visit with Rowena Elkin
From the cover of Dallas Arts Revue #37, June 1994
This story about a visit to Dallas' much-loved sculptor Rowena Elkin's home and studio was written shortly before her death, at a time when, although she was much liked and appreciated, her fame was fading.
A few months after this article was originally published, D-Art mounted a retrospective of her work. But she was very much alive and doing pretty well when I visited her and her husband in their north Dallas home in the spring of 1994.
This new, web version of the story has several photographs not used in the original, on-paper version. Unfortunately, all I have are the grayscale files originally shot on color slide film.
— J R Compton
The first thing I noticed was that there was art everywhere. "Everything in my house is stacked," she said. We started in the long, brightly-illuminated living room, which was crowded with small art and books — Who's Who In Art, A Hundred Years of Sculpture in Texas. Elenor Tufts' American Women Artists and "a few catalogs that my work has been in."
Weenie pointed to a large abstract piece occupying a corner of the room. "I did that in response to my suns. That's the moon. Don't worry about it. It's just the moon.
[Former DMA Director] Harry Parker liked the suns. They were at Connemara." She showed me a color snapshot and I remembered the oddly floating miniature universe bobbing in the wind at the far North Dallas sculpture park.
Walking through the crowded dining room toward the kitchen, I stumbled over an open box sculpture. "That's my life in there," she cheerfully warned, "Be careful."
1986: 150 Artists, WCA, Dallas City Hall, Ann Sutherland Harris, juror
1987: Sixth Texas Sculpture Symposium, San Antonio Invitational; National Sculpture Conference for Women, Cincinnati, OK Clawson Gallery; NorthLake College, Bob Nunn, juror
1988: Common Ground, WCA, 5 States, Dallas City Hall, Lynn Gumpert, juror; Women and Their Work traveling show, Al View, juror
Flanking the bookcase were "Bronze Box, Red Ladder, Corks" and "Hanging Box," which long-time DARts readers might remember was on the cover of an early, large-format issue.
As I attempted to foto the piece she called "My Life," she noted fragments of her life. "Don Quixote, my art tools — I studied violin but didn't have the talent"
Also in the box were childhood books by Beatrice Potter, humor, books about travel, wilderness, God, religion and love. And drama. "I spent a lot of years studying drama because I thought I'd do sets. I worked with Margot Jones," she said.
Lodged into the far corner were a set of half-human-scale redwood boxes with large rope and Chinese characters. "I had just got rheumatoid arthritis, and I had to work with wood that was easy to work with. That was fifteen to twenty years ago. I couldn't even lift a quart of milk without using two hands." She struggled with the arthritis until she was almost magically relieved of it when "it floated out [while she was] walking up Pecos Ruins behind Santa Fe.
"Besides art and music, I collect friends," Weenie told me. And beautiful wood furniture. Moving slowly into the dining area, she pointed at a lush, dark table. "I made that table," she said. "I bought eight walnut leaves at a second hand store for eight dollars."
Several times during my visit, she noted beautiful wood tables she had fabricated with inexpensive pieces of wood. She vividly remembered "During the war, you couldn't get wood like that."
She showed me a dancing Blythe Spirits, which she called "a family in motion-it could be the Holy Family or any other family.-I don't like people to know I choose religious subjects. I'm religious but not fanatically so."
She opened up a stack of nearly day-glowing blue wood plates she'd painted. Despite the luminous color, the designs reminded me of prewar Santa Fe. "I did my feelings about weather conditions in the mountains and New Mexico scenery. I always preferred working in abstractions." The interior designs of the plates were painted, she said, "in '41. And I did the bright blue this fall." She had never finished them and put them to one side. Finally, after forty years, she decided, "Well it's time to finish them, because I'm getting older," she said. "I still have half a dozen things to finish. At least finish most things."
"I'm kind of an architect at heart." And she often thinks about her art in architectural terms. About "African Diamond," standing at the far end of the dining room, she said, "Like an architect, I [usually] start with the basements. This one I didn't. I started with the top. I wondered what would I have to do to make it work. It took several years to find something to finish it. It all comes apart. They're just wired together. Then it all folds together for shipping."
As we entered the kitchen, Weenie said that she didn't limit herself to a single studio space at home. "I can work on the patio, in the carport or on the kitchen floor."
I noticed what seemed to be a fallen figure on the brick patio outside the kitchen. She identified it as Don Quixote, "who has always been one of my favorite stories. He was strung up in a tree. The tree pruners cut it down."
"Don Quixote and Alice In Wonderland are still my favorite stories. I know when I'm alive and sober I still have his fanciful nature. I know when I'm in and out. Some people float around all their lives."
Walking into a dark and crowded room, she introduced me to a wall full of "books I adore." Filling a neighboring wall were an exquisite suite of Frances Bagley drawings, which have "all the swoops of her sculpture. I think they're small masterpieces. I adore them," Weenie said enthusiastically.
In a far corner of the room, near the ceiling was "a stuffed golden eagle [her husband] Bush shot near Midland when he was a teenager." Flying along with it was a silvery 1991 eagle, which "was the first time I'd done anything realistic in a long time.
On a nearby table stood a simply serene block of dark wood about the size of a brick. An emptied knot-hole angled up through the lush block.
"God did it," she said. But I saved it. You look up and see the sky. You look down and see the earth and streams. That's inspiring me to do something, if I live long enough."
I got this [roll of copper] to do a reinterpretation of that. It won't look like that, of course," she said. But it would have "the telescopic part of it [with] the exciting things above and the exciting things below."
Now in the hallway back toward the bedrooms, Weenie pulled out a bronze question mark hanging from a tall, rectangular shadowbox frame. "I have two question marks," she said. One is incomplete in wood. And the other is deerskin. It's behind that tallest box over there." I gonged the question mark, and it tolled like hollow metallic vibrato. "Oh listen," she glowed, "that's the best part of it."
She brought out a 2 x 2.5 foot, dark black and yellow-green framed, pastel and charcoal New York Iris that she had painted "about 50 years ago-between '43 & '46, when I first moved to New York, and I was just stunned by the colors and the great beauty. The war was going on, and that enhanced everything," she reminisced. I took First Aid and did the Red Cross window displays toward the war effort.
"Freedom" was cast in aluminum from styrofoam, so it has the texture of styrofoam. She slid it easily around on its base to reveal its open back.
Of a similar, open, cast aluminum piece that she'd never shown, she revealed, "That's Japanese after the bomb." "Hiroshima," she called it. "I never did give it a name."
Along the long hall were a suite of eight ethereal still-life watercolors she'd done in 1956. She explained the procedure: "Dampen the paper for three hours, tape it down, paint directly, and within an hour's time, you stop. And that's it. I didn't know I could do any of these things. This was too strong for Midland. I was interested that I could do realism. I didn't think I could. I never cared too much for it, though. With a camera, why would anyone want to paint realism?" she asked.
In her daughter's bedroom stands "The History of the Hudson Valley," which Weenie painted, folk art style on an old, round oak table in 1945. Central to the Victorian townscape's design is "the house Bush and I lived when we first got married. It was a three-dollar table. I did this while I was recovering from childbirth. When I was happiest, I cried," she recalled. "It was very silly."
I have about two dozen redwood fences that have been cut down. I can't resist when I see something like that. From somewhere, she pulled out double-impression wood block prints she did on linen in college at TWU.
Then she showed me a remarkable photographic triptych of a storm coming in. "It only lasted about ten minutes, then it disappeared. It didn't storm. But this is the kind of clouds that make tornados, if they stay around. They were some of the most vicious I'd ever seen without having a funnel in them. Then the wind came along and just poofed them away."
"When I was 65 and all these people were depressed about being older, I just made these sculptures. "Three Score and Five" are three large wood box firecrackers with in-scale wooden matches. Standing by the window in the far corner of the master bedroom, they are brown wood with big rope fuses.
The room is highlighted with oranges from flat works and the blues of small rounded ceramics. In a plex box next to an antique mahogany wood chest are furry animals that served as her early inspirations--a black rabbit, a fading brown monkey and other animals. "I never played with toys," she told me, "I was always out fishing for crayfish or making villages in the sand. I even had airplanes made of little crosses of wood." When she was little, Rowena "prayed for another sister, who was a real girl, who played with dolls and danced."
Rowena was born in Ft. Worth, then moved when she was two or three. "By the time I was five, I'd seen my first Egyptian mummy" [at the World's Fair in St. Louis]. About that same time she began her sculpture career by creating sand figures.
Rowena's mother had asthma very bad, "and we had to move several times," she said. "She found she could survive in Abelene. If she got up north, "we got asthma again. So we lived wherever she could live. I lived with Daddy's sister in Clarksville, Texas where I didn't have hay fever. When I went to college, I had a rahl in my lung, [but] it disappeared after I stayed in Denton. Everything east of Dallas and Denton I was comfortable."
Sitting in the rocking chair her husband Bush got for his first Father's Day, Weenie told me about the golden maple rocker she'd got for fifty cents. "A friend and I went to a second hand store, and we came away with this prize. I preferred very contemporary furniture, [which was] difficult to find during the war."
Rowena is an inveterate bargain-hunter and proud of it. Through the house, she showed me pieces she had bought for two or three dollars - or less - from antique and other shops. Also throughout the house were books.
"I don't like clothes, unlike most women. So my family gives me books." She said she was thinking about eventually giving away most of the books she had.
She's also a collector, a keeper. When I noticed a pile of seed pods waiting to become art, she told me "Oh I collect everything-arrowheads. Anything that's loose and doesn't belong to something, I collect it."
When we got to the end of the hall, she formally invited me to enter her bathroom, which like the rest of the house was spotted with exquisite pieces of art, including a small, scrap redwood work." She showed me three penguin-shapes she'd built after she'd got rheumatoid arthritis. "It's light. It's also very rare, and I'm sorry I used it," she said.
"Growing up during the depression, I made use of everything I could. It saves money and it saves space, in a way." Sitting on the pot," she instructed, "you get best view of the penguins."
Decorating the bathroom were "all these whimsical pieces that I won't throw away" including a necklace she wore in the early Forties, made of red snapper bones she had painted black, some sponge brushes and little rows of copper.
Concluding the tour of her home and the history of her art, Rowena and I rested in her bright front room. She was more than a little fatigued by all the excitement, and I was busy catching up on my notes.
Before I left, I asked to borrow a photograph of her from when she was younger. She quickly located the wedding portrait on page 10 in an old wood chest they got from her grandparents. I also asked for photos of my favorites of her work.
When I picked up a stack of profusely-notated pictures a week after her heart attack, Weenie was moving a little slower, but her enthusiasm for life, art and people was still vibrant.
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